Settlement & Annexation Report: October 6, 2023


Welcome to FMEP’s Weekly Settlement Report, covering everything you need to know about Israeli settlement activity this week.

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October 6, 2023

  1. Smotrich Sidelines Military Legal Advisor In Order to Pursue Agenda
  2. Smotrich & Settlers Demand Bypass Road Near Huwara Following Latest Violence
  3. Israel Tightens Grip on Sebastia Site
  4. Settlers, Knesset Continue Push for IDF to Seize “Archaeological Site” at Mt. Ebal/El-Burnat
  5. The Acceleration of “Herding Outposts”, And Their Impact
  6. OCHA Reports on Ongoing Ethnic Cleansing of Masafer Yatta
  7. The JNF Is Funding Hilltop Youth
  8. Bonus Reads

Smotrich Sidelines Military Legal Advisor In Order to Pursue Agenda

Haaretz reports that Bezalel Smotrich has taken further steps to consolidate his governance over settlements and outposts in the West Bank by sidelining the Defense Ministry’s top military legal advisor in favor of his own hand-picked deputy legal advisor, Moshe Frucht. Prior to joining Smotrich, Frucht was a researcher at the far-right Kohelet Policy Forum, an organization that is widely understood to be the architect behind the anti-democratic judicial revolution and author of many legal opinions arguing for the legality of Israeli settlements under international law.

In recent meetings on the topic of settlements, Smotrich has gone from overruling the objections of the military advisor to excluding them from meetings altogether. One Israeli MK, Gilad Kariv (Labor), also accuses Smotrich of hiding the army’s official legal position from the Knesset in committee hearings and when discussing government decisions. 

As a reminder, in February 2023 Smotrich was effectively made the ruling sovereign of Area C of the West Bank via his role as a minister in the Defense Ministry and as the head of the newly created Settlements Administration, which was given power over civilian affairs in Area C.

Smotrich & Settlers Demand Bypass Road Near Huwara Following Latest Violence

The Palestinian village of Huwara has been a focal point of violence over the past few days after a Palestinian gunman opened fire on a settler vehicle on October 5th, following repeated incidents of rock-throwing at Israeli vehicles near Huwara this week. Over the night of October 5th, hundreds of settlers – including MK Zvi Sukkot – descended upon Huwara in what they claim was an attempt to set up a Sukkah in celebration of the Sukkot holiday and in response to the attack. Settlers attacked Palestinian homes and businesses resulting in clashes with Palestinians. A 19-year old Palestinian boy, Labeeb Mohammed Dmaidi, was shot and killed while standing on the roof of his family home and allegedly throwing rocks towards the settlers and IDF soldiers. Palestinians believe a settler was the shooter.

The violence has resulted in the settlers demanding that the government complete the Huwara Bypass road, which has dragged on since construction began in 2021. Bezalel Smotrich publicly stated his support for the demand while in Huwara the day after the attacks, where he further called on Netanyahu to force Palestinian shops on Huwara’s main road to remain closed until the road is complete. Smotrich later criticized Netanyahu and Defense Minister Gallant for closing down Route 60 during the funeral procession for Dmaidi. Recall that earlier this year Smotrich said that Israel should “wipe out” Huwara.

The initial shooting attack occurred on Route 60, which is used by both settlers and Palestinians as the main thoroughfare connecting central and northern West Bank. Route 60 passes through Huwwara. The bypass road is designed so that residents of Nablus-area settlements can more easily/directly access Jerusalem without driving through Huwara. Israel unilaterally expropriated private Palestinian land along the route of the road in preparation for construction.

Beyond the new demand and the possible implications it will have on the freedom of movement for Palestinians to and from Huwara, National Security Minister Ben Gvir posted on X during the settlers October 5th attack on Huwara that “”Our [Jewish Israeli] lives take priority to the Palestinians’ freedom of movement (and commerce). We’ll continue to say this truth and actively work to implement [this truth].” This is the second time that Ben Gvir has said that the rights and freedoms of Jews are more important than Palestinians.

Israel Tightens Grip on Sebastia Site 

Emek Shaveh reports that on October 1st Israeli Minister for Environmental Protection, Idit Sliman, toured the archaeological site of Sebastia alongside settler leader Yossi Dagan, declaring that the land belongs to Israel. The Sebastia site is located near the Palestinian village of Sebastia, north of Nablus in the heart of the West Bank, and straddles the line designating Areas B and C, with most of the site is in Area C. The Palestinian village of Sebastia – which settlers travel through to reach the site – is in Area B entirely. During Sliman’s tour of the site the IDF sealed off all entry points to the village.

On May 7, 2023, the Israeli government approved nearly $9 million (NIS 32 million) for a project to develop and “renovate” the archaeological site of Sebastia. The project includes plans to pave a new access road for Israelis to reach the site, which they currently have to access by traveling through the Palestinian village of Sebastia.

Settlers have been openly agitating for Israel to assert control over the archaeological site in Sebastia for years, and the settler Samaria Regional Council organizes regular tours to the site. To secure the settlers’ visits, the IDF shuts down the town of Sebastia, closing Palestinian streets and businesses. As in other cases across the West Bank, settlers allege that Palestinians are damaging the Sebastia site and that the Israeli government needs to intervene. In 2021 amidst  intensifying settler efforts related to the site, the Palestinian Foreign Ministry called on UNESCO to “protect all Palestinian archaeological and religious sites from Israeli violations, attacks and falsifications.” The archaeological site of Sebastia is on the tentative list of World Heritage sites in Palestine.

Emek Shaveh further explains the history and politicization of this archaeological site

“The battle over Sebastia is also played out in the narratives each side presents to the public. The informational material distributed by the PA does not include an explicit reference to the Kingdom of Israel or to the Hasmonean connection. On the other hand, in recent years the settlers have been rehabilitating the figure of Omri, a King of the Kingdom of Israel, in an effort to imbue Sebastia with greater nationalist significance. Sebastia also holds a special place in recent history for the settlers because it is the place where the leaders of Gush Emunim, the group that first fought for the establishment of settlements in the West Bank in the 1970s, celebrated the government’s agreement to establish the first settlement in the area in 1975.  

In tandem with the growing campaign of recent years to apply full Israeli control over Sebastia, larger numbers of Israelis visit the site every week in buses organized by the Samaria Regional Council and accompanied by soldiers.

Sebastia, is a declared national park. National parks and nature reserves in Area C of the West Bank are managed by the Civil Administration and are referred to as “parks”. Their total area spans approximately 500,000 dunams and constitutes roughly 14.5% of Area C. Palestinians’ rights are violated in these territories through various means. In the Ein Prat Nature Reserve, for example, landowners cannot cultivate their land as their access is restricted. In Herodion National Park and Nabi Samuel, residents can neither construct nor renovate their homes.”

Settlers, Knesset Continue Push for IDF to Seize “Archaeological Site” at Mt. Ebal/El-Burnat

This week settlers have carried out daily trips to the archaeological site at Mt. Ebal, known as el-Burnat to Palestinians, located in Area B of the West Bank. On Monday, the Israeli army coordinated a trip for hundreds of Israelis to the site, but has not coordinated with settlers on their trip to the site in the subsequent days. Over the past two years, settlers have been clamoring for the army to take unilateral control over the site after the Palestinian Authority began to develop land nearby. 

On October 6th, MK Son-Harmelech participated in a trip to the site and subsequently called on the government of Israel to establish a new settlement at the site (which, again, is located in Area B). 

In a further show of the settlers influence and the government’s intentions with the site, Emek Shaveh reports that on September 25th a subcommittee of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense met to discuss accusations (which have proven to be false yet  are weaponized by settlers) that the Palestinian Authority has recklessly damaged and is attempting to destroy the site. Emek Shaveh explains: “The reports and the special subcommittee session are part of an orchestrated attempt by the settlers and their representatives in the Israeli parliament to use antiquity sites as a ruse for advancing annexation.” 

At the hearing, the Civil Administration’s Head of Infrastructure, Lieutenant Colonel Adam Avidan, acknowledged that the site is in Area B where the IDF has limited authority. He also said the IDF constructed an observation tower to monitor Palestinian activity at the site. Avidan also explained that the IDF had summoned the Palestinian village leader to warn him not to conduct any construction work at the site, showing a map that marked the borders (reminder that the IDF does not have any authority over antiquity sites in Areas A or B).

Mt.Ebal/el-Burnat is purported to be an antiquity site where the biblical prophet Joshua built an altar, originally identified as such in the 1980s by an Israeli archaeologist though the majority of professional archaeologists do not support that conclusion.  Emek Shaveh, an Israeli NGO with expertise in archaeology, called the settler campaign to seize Mt. Ebal as a “watershed in Israeli archaeology.” In July 2023, Emek Shaveh reported that a triad composed of settlers, an American Christian evangelical organization, and the Israeli army collaborated on a recent unlicensed excavation on Mount Ebal, which Emek Shaveh called antiquity theft. Further, the groups transferred some 80 cubic meters of soil from Mount Ebal to the Shavei Shomron settlement, where settlers then promoted an opportunity for members of the public to join the archaeologists in sifting through the materials (thereby promoting tourism to the settlements). Haaretz called the excavation “is mainly used as a tourist attraction to the West Bank and is of little scientific significance.”

Emek Shaveh’s explained the significance of what is happening on Mount Ebal

“The archaeological site at Mount Ebal is becoming a watershed in Israeli archaeology. The activity on the site has turned from a pirate operation led by a group of Messianic Jews and Christians into a state sponsored operation under the auspices of the Civil Administration led by Minister Bezalel Smotrich.This is yet another violation of the Oslo Accords and suspected violation of domestic and international law that is whitewashed by Israeli authorities and intended to serve as a method for advancing the annexation of the West Bank to Israel.In addition to the alleged violation of the law, the excavation constitutes an ethical failure by the entire archaeological community in Israel whose silence continues to grant legitimacy to such projects. A comprehensive and immediate investigation is required by all the relevant parties as well as independently by the Israeli Archaeological Association.”

The Acceleration of “Herding Outposts”, And Their Impact

On October 3rd The New York Times published an article describing the impact of so-called herding outposts on the battle for control over land in the West Bank, highlighting reporting from Kerem Navot that shows how settlers have been establishing herding and farming outposts as a way to coerce the displacement of Palestinians and assert control a maximal amount of land with a minimal number of Israeli settlers.

That 20 new herding outposts have been established so far this year, showing how this tactic has accelerated since 2018 when settlers began to strategically focus on herding outposts as an effective mechanism. Three Palestinian herding communities have been displaced from their lands this year, largely in fear of nearby settlers.

The Times reports:

The Israeli settlers’ stated intention is to chip away at wide expanses of land that the Palestinian leadership, at the advent of the Oslo peace process 30 years ago, hoped would form the territorial spine of a future Palestinian state. ‘It’s not the nicest thing to evacuate a population,’ said Ariel Danino, 26, an Israeli settler who lives on an outpost and helps lead efforts to build new ones. ‘But we’re talking about a war over the land, and this is what is done during times of war’.”

In a 2022 report on this herding phenomenon, Kerem Navot explains:

“…the development of Israeli sheep and cattle grazing in the West Bank, […] has gradually become Israel’s most significant mechanism for dispossessing Palestinian communities. At issue are tens of thousands of acres of open areas expropriated by the Israeli authorities and settlers through dozens of shepherd outposts and farms, the great majority of which have been established over the past decade. The use of grazing to seize land began in the early 1970s and continued intermittently in the 1980s and 90s. In recent years, however, the phenomenon mushroomed in terms of area size, investments, and the destructive repercussions for Palestinian communities.

The declared objective of the farm outposts is to “protect state lands”. In practice, however, they are designed to uproot Palestinian grazing and farming communities from public or private lands, and turn them into lands that only settlers can use. To promote this objective, one instrument must be used above all others: violence. Indeed, the farm outposts have recently seen some of the most violent incidents in the West Bank. It is no wonder that the uprooting of people from their lands, often also their ancestral lands, requires severe and ongoing violence. Accordingly, countless incidents involving threats, harassments, and assaults on Palestinian farmers and shepherds have occurred around these outposts in recent years, often in the presence and full support of military or police forces.

These outposts are the spearhead of a violent land-grabbing system, well planned and generously funded by various state and quasi-state bodies. These include the military, the Israeli Civil Administration (of the West Bank), regional and local councils, the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division, the Ministries of Agriculture and Education, and the new Ministries of Settlement and Intelligence. All are preoccupied with what has recently been referred to as the “Battle for Area C”, meaning the coercive transfer of Palestinians from the area, which represents 61% of the total area of the West Bank, and their enclosure in isolated enclaves.”

OCHA Reports on Ongoing Ethnic Cleansing of Masafer Yatta

In a new report, OCHA OpT reports that over the past three months, 13 Palestinian families (84 individuals, 44 of which are children) have been forcibly displaced from the homes and grazing lands in the Masafer Yatta region in the South Hebron Hills.

OCHA reports:

“Over the years, and increasingly since May 2022, the Israeli authorities have imposed movement restrictions, confiscated property, demolished homes, and carried out military trainings in Masafer Yatta. Jointly, these practices have contributed to a coercive environment that has pressured residents to move out. In the past three months, movement restrictions have further intensified. Operating from a newly established military base, Israeli forces now patrol the area more frequently, further restricting people’s movement and access to markets and basic services, as well as the shipment of fodder and other inputs for livestock, on which most families rely. They have additionally confiscated vehicles used by residents. Two schools in the area report that 24 students have dropped out this year, including pupils whose families have left amid this coercive environment, and others who fear the unsafe journey to school. In one incident, in September, Israeli forces stopped teachers who were travelling to work and threatened to seize their vehicle if they used it again.”

The JNF Is Funding Hilltop Youth

Haaretz reports that the Jewish National Fund has givn $1million over the past two years to organizations which are involved in the construction of illegal outposts, specifically to support a project aimed at the “Hilltop Youth.” The funding is meant to offer professional training for young high school drop outs living in illegal WEst Bank outposts.

In response the this revelation, the Haaretz Editorial Board writes:

“The Jewish National Fund is continuing to bolster its role as a key player in the settlement enterprise and its accompanying looting and dispossession of the Palestinians in the West Bank, in preparation for a future annexation. Like all other settlement players, JNF too seems to view all means as kosher. And if they aren’t kosher, then they’ll be koshered retroactively in the future, after the settlers finish their takeover of Israel. Over the last two years, the Jewish National Fund has invested 4 million shekels in a project to rehabilitate teen dropouts living on farms and herding outposts in the West Bank. The money, which was meant to fund professional training for teens, is passed on to organizations that encourage the establishment of illegal settlement outposts….. the occupied territories aren’t the periphery, and “agricultural farms” in the West Bank lie outside Israel’s borders. And judging by its response, JNF is indifferent to their illegality. “The JNF is active in educational programs and does not deal with the legal status of these farms,” it said. In practice, it is directing at-risk youth to join the settlers’ extremist “hilltop youth.” Like all of Israel’s other national institutions, JNF completed its national mission once the state was established and should have been closed at that time. This is doubly true now that it has become the Settlement and Annexation National Fund.”

Bonus Reads

  1. “How to establish a new settlement without the world noticing” (+972 Magazine)
  2. “Settler violence is fueling the effects of climate breakdown on Palestinians” (+972 Magazine)
  3. “West Bank Dispatch: Settlers escalate harassment campaign, while army targets more resistance groups” (Mondoweiss)
  4. “Biden and Europe Beware: Your Silence on Israel’s Annexation Strengthens Putin” (Haaretz)
  5. “PA police extract 5 tourists mobbed after illegally entering Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus” (The Times of Israel)
  6. “How Israel uses settler violence to displace Palestinians” (The New Arab)
  7. “Why I spent Yom Kippur protecting Palestinian villagers from settler violence” (JTA News)
  8. ”Analysis | Israeli Far Right’s Ambitious West Bank Plan Could Be Saudi Deal’s Achilles’ Heel” (Amos Harel in Haaretz)